I am not a banjo player. But I once tried to be.
When I was in high school, I had an epiphany. A lot of the music I loved had something in common: banjo. I probably hadn’t realized it sooner because I didn’t really know what a banjo was, or what it sounded like on record, anyway. Suddenly, it rose to aural prominence in many of the country songs I loved at the time. It would take a few months before I came across Earl Scruggs–the man, I would later learn, who was the single reason ’90s pop-country songs even had banjo in the first place.
Earl Scruggs did not invent banjo playing, nor did he invent the turbo three-finger style he became famous for playing. There were plenty of pickers in his native North Carolina who had played that way before he did. But Scruggs brought it to the world. In the process, he changed popular music forever.
There are plenty of iconic popular music moments that I plan to check out when my time machine comes in. Perhaps I’d hit a Beatles show at the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg in 1962 before scooting off to Sun Studios to see Elvis record “That’s All Right Mama” on July 5, 1954. I’d definitely swing by the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and probably take in an Acid Test with The Grateful Dead at The Fillmore in 1966. Of course I’d stop in Bristol, Tennessee to watch Ralph Peer record Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family for the very first time in 1927.
But before I do all that, I’m going to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in December, 1945 to see Earl Scruggs kick off his first banjo solo on the Grand Ole Opry stage. He was one of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys at the time, and while the genre already had a name and an “inventor,” it just wasn’t bluegrass until that moment. I imagine the audience would have been less surprised had a lion’s roar come out of his instrument. For most of the world (and even most country music fans at the time), it was an impossible new sound. It was fast, it was sharp, it was loud and it was perfect. It was a seismic shift in music history similar to Les Paul electrifying the guitar.
From what I’ve read, audiences could hardly contain themselves when it was Scruggs’ turn to let his fingers fly.
As I said, Scruggs did not invent the style, but it was eventually named for him. It would be like saying every electric guitar player plays “Paul-style.” And Scruggs didn’t limit it to country music. He continued refining the style and often played it in jazz and rock settings. He had great success with guitarist Lester Flatt and their Foggy Mountain Boys and recorded perhaps the two most recognizable banjo tunes in history: “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” for the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the theme of “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
So when I got to college, I got a banjo and took lessons in the Scruggs style. The first thing I learned was “the Scruggs lick.” Unfortunately, I didn’t learn much more. I was never going to sound like Earl.
Earl Scruggs died yesterday at 88. Music would have been a lot less, well … just a lot less, without him.
For a more thorough obituary, check The New York Times.
Any music fan with access to Netflix must watch “The Best of the Flatt & Scruggs TV Show.” It’s available to watch instantly.